Groups may soon be able to get into some markets they couldn’t get into this year thanks to additional supply coming online, but “I think they’re still going to have to pay some rate increases year over year,” said John Argonish, corporate director of sales and marketing for Linchris Hotel Corp., which has 34 hotels in its portfolio.
Group leaders that had to opt for secondary rather than city markets this year may have to do so again, he said. And in a hot market like Savannah, Georgia, group leaders will also have to make choices about what’s important to their travelers.
Savannah’s hospitality industry is riding high on a crest of travel and tourism, seeing record numbers of visitors, particularly to the city’s historic district.
“We’re thrilled our hotels are doing so well, but during those times, it’s more of a challenge for us to get group friendly,” said Mindy Shea, director of tour, travel and international sales for Visit Savannah.
Hotels in the city’s coveted historic district are doing well, and because of that, they’re focused more on leisure travel, so “the group discounts over the past few years are not what they used to be,” she said.
The product in Savannah is also changing. Most new hotels are higher-end, boutique properties, which doesn’t fit the budgets of many motorcoach groups, she said.
That means Visit Savannah has to help find alternative properties for groups, and that starts with understanding what’s important to them. Do they want to spend the extra money to be in the heart of Savannah’s historic district to explore on foot? Or, if they’ll be on the motorcoach most of the time, would it be better to choose a property that’s farther out? Even areas that used to have more of a negative connotation, such as those near the airport, are in the mix for group leaders as they get squeezed — or priced — out of other areas.
“We have some very solid, midlevel hotels,” Shea said. “You have those really major brands, and they’re great hotels, and they’re easy.”
Hotels are riding high now, but eventually, the bright, shiny new properties will siphon some business from midlevel hotels, “which will force them to be more group friendly,” Shea said. Already, she is hearing from some local hotels asking about which trade shows to attend and showing interest in group business.
“Hotels that weren’t traditionally interested in the group business or haven’t been in the past few years, they’re starting to think about and plan for what’s coming down the pike,” she said. “We’re starting to see the early signs of that. We’re hopeful the balance is going to sort of return between the leisure and the group side of things.”
Tips and Tricks
“There are still opportunities to get great rates as long as you work with hotels on need dates,” Argonish said.
The more flexible groups leaders can be — on seasons, dates and stays — the better rates they can get. Seasonal cycles always play a factor. What may be a hot market on Cape Cod or in New England in the summer may be slow in Florida, where even big-city markets typically do not do well during off-peak times like July and August.
Booking early is also key because “usually, the further out you look, the better shot you have of getting better business,” Argonish said.
Being open to shoulder nights and low-occupancy dates is another way to get better rates. The week after a major holiday is usually pretty soft, he said. For example, Independence Day fell on a Wednesday this year, so many travelers took time off before or after July 4 for their vacations. So the week after “is a good week to target times that are softer or not as busy,” Argonish said.
If a group leader can say, “I need a Tuesday or Wednesday; which works for you?” or if the stay can include a Sunday night, it could also mean a better discount, Freitag said.
Most of Linchris’ 34 hotels are in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, but the company has hotels in several states, including Florida, Texas and Vermont. Working with a hotel group that owns or manages multiple properties means sales directors can help find properties in different states, so “if you had a good experience in Tampa, you can get a good experience in Memphis or Austin,” Argonish said.
Hotel groups also often own multiple hotels in one market. Linchris has four properties surrounding Boston, so the company will work with operators on transportation to take their groups from the hotel to visit Boston for an evening.
When it comes to negotiating contract terms, it never hurts to ask, but “we want something that is mutually beneficial,” Argonish said. “We think a good deal is mutually beneficial not only for our ownership group, but also the customer and client.”
Linchris properties sell a welcome reception that includes cookies or wine and cheese for every coach, which is pretty standard. But at its Hiltons, Linchris will roll out the red — or blue or green — carpet to make groups feels welcome when they’re arriving. Linchris properties also clean the coach and wipe down the windshield at no charge.
“Those little unexpected pleasures separate the experience from one hotel to another,” Argonish said.
It’s pretty standard to ask for free rooms for the tour operator or bus driver, and group leaders can also ask for a reduction in baggage service or a later checkout time.
Negotiating a price on breakfast or doing a separate buffet is another option. Some of Linchris’ properties don’t have large breakfast areas, so they’ll negotiate a price that includes breakfast at a nearby pancake-house type of restaurant.
“If we have an opportunity to get a coach at one of our properties, it’s an opportunity to have a coach at 33 more,” Argonish said.